Gateway to the Classics: The Counties of England by Charlotte Mason
The Counties of England by  Charlotte Mason

The Counties of Hertford and Bedford


Hertford and Bedford are both farming counties, where there is scarcely a bit of waste land anywhere, excepting the round tops of the Chilterns, which divide the two shires. These hills form part of one of the long chalk ranges that start from Salisbury Plain. Ploughed fields and woods climb the slopes, and the short turf of the hill sides makes capital mutton, like that bred upon the Downs.

Both counties have many woods and many parks, with lordly mansions "where the wealthy nobles live." Though there are no hills of any height except the Chilterns, Hertford and Bedford cannot be called flat shires; for the ground swells and sinks with a pleasant rise and fall, and there are often clumps^ of trees upon the uplands.

Many cows are to be seen grazing, chiefly in Bedfordshire where butter is made for the London market. There are fine pasture-fields in the north of this shire, the soil being rather wet, like that of the fen counties round it on either side. This is the case especially along the banks of the Great Ouse, which makes endless loops and turns in its course. Famous onions and cucumbers are grown in the south-west of this county, where the sandy soil suits these vegetables. Hertford is, on the whole, a prettier county than Bedfordshire, with more woods and parks and hills. Besides the Chilterns on the north-west and west, it has low hills along the Middlesex border. It is also a fruit-growing county, with large cherry and apple orchards, where fruit is grown for Covent Garden Market. Indeed, Herts is a friendly neighbour-county to the great city of London, which it supplies not only with fruit, but with all kinds of table vegetables. Lettuces, green peas, and cauliflowers are raised in its large market-gardens. Flowers, also, are largely cultivated; and the roses of Herts take the first prizes in the London Shows.

Better than flowers and fruit, better than peas and potatoes, is the water of the New River to London. This water is collected in large reservoirs at Hornsey and Stoke Newington. At these places it is filtered to clear it from impurities, and then caused to flow into pipes, which carry it all over London. Where does it come from, this water with which so many London teakettles are filled? There are some springs of delightful water close by Ware (where John Gilpin's friend lived); Chadwell is the largest. To bring the fresh water from these springs to thirsty London was the thought of one Sir Hugh Myddelton, who lived some two hundred and fifty years ago. He had a channel dug, forty miles long, for the stream to flow in, and this was the New river—really new then, though it is old now in all but name.

Though there is much gardening done in Herts, both this county and Bedford are, for the most part, under the plough. Perhaps there is, for its size, more ploughed land in Bedford than in any other English county. Wheat, barley and oats, potatoes and turnips, peas and beans are largely grown. Wheat is the chief crop, and the white wheat straw of these counties is put to an important use.

Throughout Herts and Bedford, and in parts of Essex and Suffolk, in which counties the wheat straw is of the right kind, the women and girls are at work in the cottages making straw plait, while the men are busy in the fields. Thirteen straws are generally plaited together, worked much in the same way as broad plaits of hair. It is easy work, which the children learn to do.

The towns in Herts where straw plait is most largely made are: the old town of Hitchin, Baldock, Eoyston, Tring, Hemel Hempstead, Watford, where paper also is made, and St. Albans. These are also the chief market-towns of the county.

The two best known straw-plaiting towns are in Bedford, these are Dunstable and Luton, both among the Chilterns. The kind of plait called "Dunstable" is much esteemed; at Luton "Tuscan" plait is made. Bedford, Biggleswade, Ampthill, and Leighton Buzzard, which has an old stone cross, are also straw-plaiting towns. These are the market-towns of Bedfordshire, and in them, and indeed all over the county, another kind of cottage-work is carried on, the making of pillow-lace. This is but a poor trade since the invention of the Nottingham frame for lace-making.

II. John Bunyan

There are various places of interest in the county of Bedford. Near the market-town of Woburn is Woburn Abbey, an ancient abbey which has been converted into a very stately palace indeed, the seat of the Dukes of Bedford; with many books, and pictures, and statues, beautiful and rare; with a wide park, and a model park farm. There is Ampthill, where once stood Ampthill Castle,

"The mournful refuge of an injured queen,"—

Katherine, the first queen of Henry VIII., whom he put away that he might be free to marry another lady.

And, most interesting of all, there is Bedford, among the rich meadows of Ouse, whose valley is here called the Vale of Bedford. It is an old town, with a rich Free Grammar School.

Bedford is a very quiet town, and its interest lies, not in the memory of dukes or queens, but in that of John Bunyan, a tinker by trade, who was for twelve years a prisoner in the old gaol which stood upon the bridge. Very sad for him, but well for us; for in that old gaol he saw Doubting Castle and the Slough of Despond, and the land where "the shining ones commonly walked, because it was on the borders of heaven." There he saw Pilgrim leave the City of Destruction, and climb the Hill Difficulty, on his Vay to the Heavenly City, which was on a hill "higher than the clouds." Perhaps but for this long imprisonment we should never have had the delightful and helpful story of ' Pilgrim's Progess/ one of the best books in the world.

What was his crime? Only that he would persist in preaching in a Baptist chapel at Bedford without leave, without a licence. He lived in troublous times, through the Civil War, through the days of the Commonwealth, which were good days for the Puritans, of whom he was one. But after the Restoration the king and his friends were bitter against the party who had put Charles I. to death. Thousands of Puritans were imprisoned all over the country for slight breaches of the law, and among the rest was John Bunyan.

III. St. Albans, Herts

The town of St. Albans stands where stood the city of Verulam, one of the thirty-three great cities left behind by the Romans. The Watling Street passed under its walls; and it was here that "the British warrior queen," Boadicea, fell upon the Roman citizens with a large army of her people and slew many thousands of them.

Here fell the first martyr who died upon British ground for the faith of Christ. He was a soldier in the Roman army, whose name was Alban.

He was taken to the top of a hill clothed with flowers, and which sloped down to a beautiful plain. A great multitude of persons followed; and the martyr's face was so full of heavenly joy that the executioner begged he might suffer in his stead.

Five hundred years later a great abbey was raised here to his memory, and the town still bears the name of Saint Alban.

This rich and famous abbey received many visits from royal persons. Henry VI. was staying there when, upon a May day in the year 1455, was fought the first battle of St. Albans, the first battle in the grievous Wars of the Roses. A sad time for England followed; for sixteen years war raged up and down the land. Though the people in the towns went on with their business, all the great barons and their retainers fought, either for the House of York or for that of Lancaster.

The king belonged to the House of Lancaster; he could not see any reason why he should not be king as long as he lived, and leave the crown to his son. He said, "My father was king; his father also was king; I myself have worn the crown for forty years from my cradle" (his father, Henry V., had died when he was a baby); "you have all sworn fealty to me as your sovereign. How, then, can my right be disputed?"

The king was right enough. There was no good reason why he should not be king. But he was often ill, and not able to govern the land himself, so things went wrong, and the king was blamed. When Richard, Duke of York, said he had the best right to be King of England, he found many ready to support him.

This first battle only lasted an hour, but Henry's army was beaten, and he was left, wounded in the neck by an arrow, a prisoner to the Duke of York.

Other battles followed; sometimes the Red Rose won, sometimes the White Rose. Those of the House of Lancaster chose the red rose as their badge, while those of York wore the white; and the civil war was thus known over Europe as the quarrel between the two roses.

Upon a Shrove Tuesday, six years after the first battle, the two armies met once again near St. Albans. The king was on the field, but he was brought there as a prisoner by the Yorkists. The battle lasted long, and when night set in the Yorkists fled, though the mighty Earl of Warwick was their leader. The victory was with the queen; and when she heard that her dear lord was upon the field she took her son and hastened to greet him and bring him again to his own friends. Then the royal family and their northern lords went to the abbey, at the doors of which they were met by the Abbot John and his monks, who chanted hymns of triumph and thanksgiving; and the king and his party returned thanks for the victory and for his deliverance.

The Abbey Church still remains; it is built in the form of a cross, and is the longest church in England.

Hertford is an old town, which stands upon the Lea. It is known for its large fairs and markets, and for its rich free schools. In its ancient castle all the kings of the House of Lancaster have held court. Six miles off is Hatfield House, which was given to the Princess Elizabeth by her brother; here she dwelt as a sort of prisoner at large during the reign of Mary; and here is the tower from the window of which she looked down with envy upon the happier milkmaid at her work.

Near the city is the Rye House, famous because the owner of it formed a plot with some others to shoot Charles II. This plot was discovered, and led to the death of two good and great men who had nothing to do with it, Lord Russell and Algernon Sidney, of whose most unjust execution our country must always be ashamed.

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